How to write a PR brief

Looking for a new PR agency? Grayling’s West Coast Lead and Global Head of Strategic Services, Jon Meakin offers some tips on what to include in the ideal brief.

After more than 25 years in the PR agency world, on both sides of the Atlantic, I’ve seen and responded to countless briefs from organizations looking for an agency partner.

Some briefs are excellent: Detailed, thorough and realistic. Sadly, however, these are very much the minority. Most briefs are pretty terrible. There are a number of reasons for that, all of which are perfectly reasonable: Very often the PR agency brief is written by a non-PR person – maybe someone skilled in other marketing disciplines, but with no direct experience of PR, or maybe someone in the procurement department.

Briefs are often written in a hurry, too. It is not unusual for PR to be a “distress purchase”, when there is an immediate PR or reputation problem to be solved, so a brief is thrown together quickly and the whole process rather hurried.

And sometimes there is a lack of clarity about why an organization is hiring a PR agency at all, what it is they are hoping to achieve.

There many guides to writing a great PR brief, and I don’t propose replicating that advice here, but I am going to boil things down to the key points, based on many years of experience, and the most common mistakes or omissions that I see.

  1. Do state your organizational objectives: Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But very few PR briefs actually start here; they usually start with PR or communication objectives (and even they are often not SMART). PR should not be thought of as ‘a nice to have’. At its best, it is a strategic function that should serve to further your organisation’s objectives. The PR objective of Company X may be to increase awareness, but why? As consultants we are trained to keep asking why until we get to the heart of the matter: Company X wants to raise awareness, so more of its target audience will buy its product or service and its can increase its market share. That’s important context, and your agency needs to understand that.
  2. Don’t skimp on the detail: The more detail you are able to provide your agency at the briefing stage, the better. We are accustomed to handling sensitive information for clients, and are always happy to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement. We need to know as much as you do about the ABC of your organisation Your Audience, your Brand and your Category. Give us all that up-front and we can focus our response time in developing a kick-ass plan, rather than running around trying to find out things for ourselves that you have just decided not to tell us.
  3. Don’t hide the problems: And on that subject, if you are one of those organisations that has a PR problem, it is much better for your would-be agency partner to know up front. They will need to know eventually anyway, in order to give you the best advice about how to overcome those challenges.
  4. Don’t be too prescriptive: While a detailed brief is important, I see far too may that are highly prescriptive, detailing the precise techniques that the client expects to be employed. But you are employing a PR agency because they are experts in PR. Restrict their thinking at the briefing stage and there is little chance of getting the best out of them. Let your agency recommend the most appropriate techniques to employ, in order to meet your communication and organisational objectives. (Hint: There’s much more to PR these days than media relations!)
  5. Do allow sufficient response time: Developing a great response to a brief takes time. Rushing the process serves nobody’s interests – especially the client’s.
  6. Do engage prospective agency partners: It is commonplace now, especially with procurement-driven briefs, to keep bidding agencies at arm’s length. And while I understand that in-house PR teams do not want all their time to be sucked up by the pitch process, and procurement departments want to maintain a level playing field, engaging with agencies throughout the process can be incredibly revealing and rewarding for all concerned. Once you have issued the brief, allow the agencies you have briefed to interrogate that brief – ideally in person. Meet them and let them ask questions. ‘Tissue’ meetings are also really valuable, giving agencies an opportunity to sense check directions or campaign ideas with you, and you the chance t test tat all-important chemistry, that does not appear on paper anywhere.
  7. Do think about measurement and evaluation: This is a particular hobby horse of mine, as I sit on the international board of AMEC (the Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication). We know that our clients are under increasing pressure to prove the value of what they do. But more often than not, measurement and evaluation is given no more than lip service, both in the brief and in the response. I would love to see a day when every client brief requires agencies to be members of AMEC, and adherence to AMEC best practice.
  8. Do provide (realistic) budget guidance: This is a big one. Hardly ever do we see budgets outlined in a brief, and I have never understood why. If you want to buy a car or a house, the car dealer or estate agent are going to need to know how much you intend to spend. The same goes with procuring a PR agency. Specify a budget, or at least a budget range, and you will get an appropriate response.

In short, the best briefs elicit the best responses. I could write a much longer list, but follow the above and you won’t go far wrong.

Good luck!

Jon Meakin is Grayling’s US West Coast Lead, and Global Head of Strategic Services.